Stanford thriving behind line that blends physicality and innovation
LOS ANGELES -- Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren arrived at his Rose Bowl press conference this week wearing Google Glass, the head-mounted, wearable computer from the new-age technology giant.
Bloomgren also coaches Stanford's offensive line, a position traditionally associated more with hulking grunts than space-age innovation. But with a surplus of blue-chip players destined for NFL careers, and with creative schemes that deploy as many as nine offensive linemen at once, Stanford is showing that imaginative line play isn't necessarily a paradox.
Fitting for a school where ingenuity is intertwined in its ethos, Stanford has managed to challenge the boundaries of position group often perceived as primitive. The Cardinal have used at least six offensive linemen on a majority of their plays this season, and they've evolved to the point that formations with seven and eight offensive linemen have become the norm.
"I don't know that anyone is doing it to the degree we are," Bloomgren said. "We've had people copy us, video games have added our formations and everyone has invited us to speak at clinics."
Programs like Oregon and Baylor have changed the landscape of college football with their tempo. Stanford (11-2) has smashed its way to the Rose Bowl by bringing short-yardage formations to practically every down and distance. When the Cardinal play Michigan State on Wednesday in Pasadena, they'll be the only program in the country that has played in four consecutive BCS games.
To understand the success of Stanford's oversized schemes, look no further than the bludgeoning of Oregon's defense on Nov. 7, when Stanford maintained possession for more than 42 minutes in a 26-20 win. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Stanford has been inundated with compliments. Cardinal coaches have flipped on the television this fall to see teams from the Atlanta Falcons to Boston College to the Cincinnati Bengals using their formations. Head coach David Shaw doesn't think it's a coincidence that old-school, power-football teams like Alabama and Michigan State have won consistently and convincingly in an era largely defined by spread offenses.
"Why would I shift what I'm doing when I look at the teams that are typically playing for the national championship are [teams that are] more traditional and don't necessarily have the biggest stats?" Shaw said. "What we've done has been successful, and we've shown that old principles still work."
The most fascinating part of Stanford's offense over the past four seasons has been its new-age twists on old-school philosophies. Without the tweaks, Stanford already has one of the country's most dominating offensive lines. Prototype left tackle Andrus Peat (6-foot-7, 312 pounds), unanimous All-America left guard David Yankey (6-5, 313) and second-team All-Pac-12 right tackle Cam Fleming (6-6, 318) all project to have lengthy NFL careers. Center Khalil Wilkes and right guard Kevin Danser are fifth-year seniors who provide grit and experience.
The intrigue and innovation come from the reserves, who, in the genius of Stanford's offense and recruiting pitch, aren't really backups at all. Sophomores Kyle Murphy and Joshua Garnett came to Stanford, along with Peat, as the headliners of a 2012 offensive line class regarded as one of the best in college football history. While Murphy doesn't start at one of the five traditional line positions, he plays as many as 50 snaps a game as Stanford's Jumbo Formation tight end. At 6-7 and 295 pounds, he wears No. 94 and lines up outside the tackle. No magic or voodoo is involved; he simply brings a nasty streak and 50 more pounds than a traditional tight end would. If Murphy barrels into a 250-pound linebacker, one doesn't need a physics degree from Stanford to predict the result.
Bloomgren brought the Jumbo concept with him from the New York Jets, who used offensive lineman Wayne Hunter in that role. Hunter, who is 6-5 and 315 pounds, could dominate a defensive end or Sam linebacker a Jets tight end might normally struggle to block.
"We tuned the mismatch completely around," Bloomgren said. "Instead of a disadvantage, it became a true advantage. It just made sense."
Before Bloomgren arrived at Stanford in 2011, the Cardinal had begun tinkering with the so-called Ogre position that Garnett typically plays. Garnett, who is 6-5 and 318 pounds, lines up as a wing behind the traditional inline tight end as a wrinkle in the double tight end (Y-Y or Double-Y) sets.
Garnett, who came to Stanford as a coveted guard prospect, plays more than 20 snaps at game at the Ogre. He'll often run in motion, creating comical mismatches of more than 100 pounds when he reaches the second level. "In the Oregon game," said Murphy, "it was really cool to see him block a small corner and just flatback a guy."
A flatback is exactly what it sounds like, a crushing block that ends up with the opponent flat on his back. Garnett wears No. 98 for the Ogre spot. (Both he and Murphy also have conventional offensive line numbers they can wear if they're going to play a traditional line spot.)
The Ogre position at Stanford took hold in 2010, when then-run-game coordinator Greg Roman and staff studied film of John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens. James McGillicuddy, a sixth-year senior at the time who had worked through an injury-riddled career, suddenly found a crucial role in the Cardinal offense. "He had played five positions and none of them well, and he would say the same thing," Shaw said. "We put him on the wing, and to this day I have not seen a guy on our level or the NFL level that did it as well as him."
Bloomgren came the next year, mixing Jumbo concepts with the Ogre to help further Stanford's smashmouth reputation. As it evolved, Stanford has managed to be innovative while remaining predictable.
"When they're ahead and they use that Jumbo package, you know what's coming at you and you have to stop it," said the Arizona State defensive line coach Jackie Shipp. "They're saying, 'This is what we do. We're going to keep coming at you with it until you stop us.'"
Few have succeeded at stopping the Cardinal. Things get even more complicated when Stanford bunches into eight- and nine-linemen sets, and the staff joke is that they go on safari as the formations range from "Elephant" to "Rhino."
Murphy and Garnett aren't the only players who have gotten into the mix. Stanford has also used senior guard Dillon Bonnell (6-4, 281), redshirt freshman guard Johnny Caspers (6-4, 301), redshirt freshman center Graham Shuler (6-4, 282) and redshirt freshman tackle Nick Davidson (6-7, 289) in extra linemen packages this season. All but Bonnell are part of that heralded offensive line class headlined by Peat, Murphy and Garnett. While only Peat has locked down a starting job, all of the second-year players have seen meaningful action.
"As a guy gets hurt or a guy graduates, you throw those guys in there and don't worry about it," Shaw said. "We're playing eight offensive linemen a game, and to be honest it helps us recruit."
Yankey is expected to announce his declaration for the 2014 NFL draft in the coming weeks. Fleming, an aeronautics and astronautics major, could be set to depart as well. That means Stanford could have four new full-time starters next year who have already experienced hundreds of snaps.
"I'd love for David Yankey and Cam Fleming to come back," Bloomgren said. "Obviously they make me a better coach every day. But I'm not concerned for a minute if those guys decide the best thing for them is the NFL."
While the young Stanford linemen came in with big reputations, none have yet earned a coveted black beanie from the Tunnel Worker's Union Local 88 in South Quincy, Mass. That began with former Stanford All-America right tackle Chris Marinelli, who played his final season in 2009. Marinelli's father belonged to the Tunnel Workers Union for nearly three decades. Offensive line play, at its core, consists of digging holes and building tunnels, so Marinelli started a tradition. Stanford strength coach Shannon Turley is in charge of deciding when linemen have shown enough blue-collar grit to earn a black Tunnel Worker beanie.
"That's what it's about and where everything circles back to," Turley said. "We have to keep meritocracy in tact. Andrew Luck wouldn't have it any other way. We don't want him to come back and find guys have gotten things they haven't earned."
When Bloomgren peers through his Google Glass into the future, he sees Jumbos and Ogres mixed with advanced run schemes. That's fitting for Stanford, where innovation thrives at football's most seemingly primitive position.